The Death Of An Icon
Some of you may have noticed the minute’s silence prior to the match between France and England on Wednesday night. This was to mark the death, at the age of 49, of Thierry Gilardi, France’s very own “Voice Of Football”. When Franck Ribery was booked for ripping of his shirt after scoring the only goal of the match, it was a tribute to Gilardi that was printed on the vest underneath it, and the praise in France for the former Canal Plus and TF1 man has been fulsome, to say the least. Ironically, Gilardi had only been with TF1 since 2004 – a short period of time in the life of the average commentator – but the reaction to it all seems to reveal a schism in attitudes towards the men on the television in this country and in France.
In this country, we are almost duty bound to hate our football commentators. The broadcaster Danny Baker would often make mention of his father shouting “WE KNOW!” at the television every time John Motson opened his mouth, and I’ve been as guilty as the rest of us of throwing spit-inflected bile in the direction of the likes of Jonathan Pearce and Clive Tyldesley, safe in the knowledge that there will be no comeuppance for it. The truth of the matter is that we love to hate our commentators. The writer Harry Pearson, otherwise one of the gentlest souls in football writing in this country, once wrote a piece for “When Saturday Comes” about David Coleman that was so angry that one could imagine blood coming out of his ears as his wrote it, and a recent review of Barry Davies’ autobiography turned out to be considerably less about the book than it was about his dislike of Davies’ commentary style.
It’s certainly true that there have been no Gilardiesque outbursts of emotion upon the death of any British commentators. The death of Brian Moore at the comparatively young age of 68 in 2001 was marked by a minute’s silence at many Football League grounds, but he had the misfortune to die on the day that England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich and, as such, was largely pushed out of the news by that. The death of Hugh Johns, who was the voice of ITV football for almost twenty years, was singularly unacknowledged in this country, and even Kenneth Wolstenholme’s passing was largely unnoticed by the game itself.
It is important to remember the importance of editors in football commentary. The average football commentary is as much managed by the man upstairs in front of a bank of TV screens as it is by the man with a microphone in his hand. It is for this reason that I usually try to temper my rage at Clivge Tyldesley, Peter Drury and Jon Champion on ITV somewhat – I know that all three of these men are fine journalists and could all be fine commentators, if only ITV would let them be. Why has John Motson become louder and louder as the years have progressed? The fact of the matter is that, in a world in which football has become The Most Important Thing In The World, a world in which bombast is everything and reasoned, rational analysis has become everything, it doesn’t even matter if the instructions are coming from on high. If a commentator is too quiet, he can easily be replaced with someone that will be louder. So it was that Barry Davies’ replacement at the BBC was Jonathan Pearce, a man with a voice like a foghorn, who regularly comes close to drowning out the sound of the crowd on his own.
The reaction to Gilardi’s death was no doubt coloured by shock at his relatively youthful age. In Britains, our commentators are like pieces of furniture that we don’t much like but can’t really get rid of – they sit in the corner, telling us what we already know, irritating the hell out of us with their weak jokes and banal chit chat during quieter moments. At the end of the day, though, Brian, we wouldn’t want to do away with them altogether, would we?